The Eternal Torah Versus the Living Torah Rabbi Cardozo’s Thoughts on the Mei HaShiloah, Part 4 The Radical Teachings of the Mei HaShiloah on God and Halacha

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 27 maart 2020

In memory of Harry van den Bergh z.l.


Dear friends, Shalom u-vracha. In these trying times, it is of great value to focus on spiritual matters which could move us to a different plain which will give us comfort, broaden our minds and enlarge our souls, while carefully observing all the health instructions of the government.

Herewith we send you the fourth part of Yehudah DovBer Zirkind’s reflections on the ideas of the Mei HaShiloah and my own.

We thank Yehudah DovBer for this excellent representation.

Enjoy and stay healthy!

Nathan Lopes Cardozo


In the previous essay we discussed the Mei HaShiloah’s teachings about tsimtsum (contraction) and hitpashtut (expansion) as two different modes of divine service. The Mei HaShiloah states that when one has reached an advanced level of divine service, they can let their guard down and shed layers of excessive fear and restraint which had previously dominated their approach toward halachic observance. At this point, chumrot, gedarim and sayagim (halachic stringencies and precautionary measures) are no longer necessary. In addition, at this advanced stage one may adopt a more positive attitude toward the enjoyment of physical pleasures because they are confident that they will be able to integrate physical enjoyment in their divine service. Once a degree of mastery in halachic observance has been reached, one can let go of their halachic “training wheels” and serve God based on love rather than fear. (1)

The Mei HaShiloah Contextualized

I believe that it is important to understand the Mei HaShiloah’s ideas in the context of his predecessors within the chassidic movement.

There is a tendency within certain religious circles to measure religious piety in terms of halachic stringency. (2) This attitude maintains that increased stringency demonstrates greater religious devotion and serves as a bulwark against halachic laxity and callousness. (3)

The Ba’al Shem Tov turned this sacrosanct trend on its head when he admonished against too much stringency, lest it induce fear in the hearts of people that they have not fulfilled the commandments properly. This anxiety can lead a person to depression. The Besht believed that the urge to be stringent may even stem from the evil inclination which seeks to drive the person into a depressive and melancholic state which is inimical to serving God with joy. According to the Besht, a mood of sadness and despondency which negatively affects the service of God is far worse than relaxing stringencies. These teachings of the Besht are cited by his disciples and other early chassidic masters (such as R. Pinchas of Koretz, Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef of Polnoye, and R. Nachman of Bratzlav) who emphasize that stringency stems from the traits harshness and severity and clashes with the traits of love and joy. (4)

In particular, the Mei Hashiloah’s teaching regarding tsimtsum vs. hitpashtut reflects a similar teaching (5) recorded in the name of the chassidic master R. Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (ca. 1765-1827), one of the most influential chassidic figures who directly influenced the Mei Hashiloach.

Furthermore, as several scholars have already pointed out (6) the Mei HaShiloah’s teachings about tsimtsum vs hitpashtut echo similar insights of the great chassidic master R. Ya’akov Yitzchak Horowitz (ca. 1745-1815), also known as the “Seer of Lublin.”

The Seer of Lublin presents two modes of divine service: passionate fervor vs constant vigilance. He contrasts the person who is driven by fear of Heaven (and is always concerned lest he transgress the Halacha) with the lover of God who is driven by the passionate desire to cleave to God. The lover of God can get carried away with intense deveikut (communion with God) and be seized by hitlahavut (fervor) thereby leaping beyond rigid Halakhic parameters. Indeed, as the well-known maxim states, ahava mekalkelet et ha-shura (love defies limitations). The person who is passionately in love with God might soar on the wings of the spirit of the law and be less zealous in safeguarding the letter of the law. This ecstatic approach to the service of God is apt to clash with the sobriety and hypervigilance demonstrated by the guardian of halachic minutiae. Moreover, according to the Seer of Lublin, an overly guarded approach may interfere with attaining a state of deveikut and attachment to God. Someone who cannot move away from excessive fear will not be able to reach the level of serving God with love. (7)

Yet, it must be noted that he is not condoning hardcore antinomianism. R. Ya’akov Yitzchak provides explicit examples that illustrate his idea; these include laws concerning prayers and the propriety of rebuking one’s fellow for their shortcomings. (8) In other words, within the context of passionate religious devotion certain protocols (such as finishing prayers on time) may be disregarded; however, he does not permit a complete rejection of halachic practice. As we have just demonstrated, the ideas of the Mei HaShiloah echo the teachings of the Seer of Lublin (although the Mei HaShiloah applies it in a more radical way as will be discussed below).

Rabbi Cardozo Pushes the Envelope

While the aforementioned teachings of the Mei HaShiloah refer to the relaxing of certain halachic stringencies and not the annulment of mitzvot in toto; nevertheless, in light of the insights of the Seforno and other thinkers, this line of reasoning can be extended further to include the need to perform certain mitzvot altogether. As we have discussed in an earlier essay (9), the Seforno and other Jewish philosophers state that certain mitzvot were commanded only as a result of spiritual corruption after the sin of the golden calf. The implication of this is that in the messianic age when there will be a return to a spiritually pristine state, these mitzvot will no longer be necessary. Therefore, Rabbi Cardozo’s suggestion in his presentation to the Think Tank that there might be a connection between the teachings of the Mei HaShiloah and the Seforno, may be supported based on the foregoing arguments.

Moreover, as we have explained in the previous essay, the Mei HaShiloah states that in the future all the commandments will be annulled, because mitzvot are divine garments, not the divine essence. Prior to the manifestation of God’s full glory, the only way to connect to Him is through His garments, the mitzvot; however, once God’s glory is revealed one will be able to connect to God directly without the mediating function of the mitzvot.

It should be noted, however, that this view seems to accord with the theological position, mentioned in the previous essay, that the mitzvot are instrumental rather than essential. This approach maintains that the mitzvot serve an educational and spiritual purpose to refine human character or to instill within them a greater awareness of the divine. Thus it is theoretically possible for mitzvot to be modified or abrogated once their spiritual goals have been reached. According to the opposing theological position, however, the mitzvot are an expression of God’s innermost will. In other words, the mitzvot don’t serve a secondary function (i.e. as means toward an end beyond itself), but a primary function (i.e. it is an end in itself). Thus, the mitzvot cannot be abolished. These two theological approaches are also expressed via two distinct kabbalistic metaphors. Whereas the Mei HaShiloah employs the Kabbalistic metaphor of mitzvot as garments (which are changeable), R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, employs the Kabbalistic metaphor of mitzvot as the limbs of God, which cannot be discarded. (10) Based on the latter approach, just as God is eternal, so too the mitzvot are eternal and immutable. (11)

The Alienation of God from Halacha

This brings us to another insight of the Mei HaShiloah which is of crucial importance to our discussion, namely, the relationship between God and Halacha.

Professor Haym Soloveitchik in his famous article “Rupture and Reconstruction” describes the state of post-Holocaust Orthodox Judaism as follows. “It is this rupture in the traditional religious sensibilities that underlies much of the transformation of contemporary Orthodoxy. Zealous to continue traditional Judaism unimpaired, religious Jews seek to ground their new emerging spirituality less on a now unattainable intimacy with Him, than on an intimacy with His Will, avidly eliciting Its intricate demands and saturating their daily lives with Its exactions. Having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke.” (12)

Indeed, for many Orthodox Jews the Halacha has become a shortcut or even a substitute for (a direct relationship with) God. The statement in the Talmud that, “Since the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, Blessed be He, has only the four cubits of Halacha,” has been interpreted in an extreme reductionist manner within certain Orthodox circles. Rabbi Cardozo in his highly critical and satirical essay “God is Relocating” (13) bemoans this tragic state of affairs whereby religious devotion has been replaced with ever-increasing stringencies in Halacha.

In an earlier era, this attitude has elicited a counter-response from several Chassidic masters who have called for a restoration of the primacy of God in religious observance. (14) In particular, the Peshischa and Kotzk branches of Chassidism, i.e. the milieu in which the Mei HaShiloah’s ideas were cultivated and developed, stressed the importance of inner purity in the service of God over external compliance with the Halacha.

Kotzker chassidim insisted that religious fervor and vitality take precedence over frumkeit (pious conformity). They mocked superficial forms of piety where the main focus was meticulousness in rote observance and the habitual repetition of fixed forms instead of striving for inner devotion. (15) R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), the rebbe of the Mei HaShiloah, was disdainful of frumkeit, “He was asked: what flaw are you exoriating when you call someone “a frumer” (a pious person)? He replied, “a frum person is someone who turns petty matters into primary concerns.” (16) Another scathing remark attributed to the legendary R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk encapsulates the essence of his approach: what’s the difference between a chasid and a mitnaged (an opponent of chassidism)? A chasid fears God, whereas a mitnaged fears the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law). (17)

A primary example of this tension between law and spirit in chassidism relates to the protocols of prayer. As we have already mentioned regarding the Seer of Lublin, certain Chassidic groups, especially Peshiche and Kotzk felt a dissonance between the essence of prayer and the laws of prayer. They did not always adhere to the laws governing the exact times of prayer because they felt that prayer cannot be supplied on demand and produced mechanically by the striking of a clock. (18) As Abraham Joshua Heschel puts it, they believed that the kavana (intentionality) dimension of prayer is of equal importance, if not superior, to the keva (regularity) dimension of prayer. (19) On one occasion R. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk did not pray the mincha prayer on Rosh Hashana because he was not completely sober. (20) Although his actions did not deviate from the Halacha; (21) nevertheless, this behavior is a far-cry from the frum mindset of punctiliousness in rote observance.

I believe that understanding the Mei HaShiloah’s approach to Halacha as emerging from the Peshischa and Kotzk Chassidic tradition is crucial for a proper appreciation and evaluation of his ideas. (22) The Mei HaShiloah railed against fixed forms of religious observance which lacked religious vigor and vitality. He ingeniously interpreted the prohibition in the Torah against fashioning graven images, “You shall not make molten gods for yourselves.” (23) and “Cursed be anyone who makes a sculptured or molten image” (24) as a warning against “Halachic idolatry”, i.e. following Halacha in a mechanical fashion and obeying the rules compulsively without being moved by the spirit of God. (25) While chassidim were strictly observant and did not condone breaking the law, they stressed that the inertia of mitzvot anashim melumada (perfunctory observance) must be replaced by the attitude of shiviti Hashem le-negdi tamid (I am ever mindful of God's presence). (26)

To be continued.


(1) See footnotes #17-26 in the last essay.

(2) See Benjamin Brown, “Stringency: Five Modern Era Types”, Dine Israel: An Annual of Jewish Law Past and Present 20-21 (5760-5761): 123-237 (Hebrew).

(3) For a detailed analysis of various positive and negative views regarding chumra (halachic stringency), see Abraham Joshua Heschel, Torah min Hashamayim Ba-aspaklaria shel Hadorot, vol. 3 (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1995), 105-137.

(4) See the teachings attributed to the Besht in Tsava'at ha-Rivash (NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1998), 19-20; R. Pinchas of Koretz, Imrei Pinchas Hasalem, ed. Elimelech Elazar Frankel (Bnei Brak: Yechezkel Shraga Frankel, 2003), vol 1, p. 82, #170; Ibid. pp. 333-334, #42-44; R. Nachman of Bratslav, Likkutei Moharan Tinyana #44. These sources are cited in Abraham Joshua Heschel, Kotzk: in gerangl far emesdikeit (Kotzk: The Struggle for Integrity) (Tel Aviv: Menorah, 1973) II:641-642, 686-687 (Yiddish); Idem, Torah min Hashamayim Ba-aspaklaria shel Hadorot, vol. 3, 117-118.

(5) See R. Alexander Zusha HaCohen, Sefer Yakar Mipaz (Warsaw, 1932), p. 102, no. 16.

(6) See Rachel Elior, “Changes in Religious Thinking in Polish Hasidut: A Comparison between 'fear' and 'Love' and 'Depth' and 'Surface,” Tarbiz 62, no. 3 (Nisan-Sivan 1993): 381-432 (Hebrew); Idem, Cherut al haluchot: ha-machshava ha-chasidit, mekoroseha ha-mistiyim ve-yesodoseha ha-kabaliyim (Tel Aviv: Misrad habitachon: 1999), chap. 11. For a critique of Rachel Elior’s analysis of the views of the Seer of Lublin, see Yehuda (Jerome) I. Gellman. “Hasidic Existentialism?” in Hazon Nahum: Studies in Jewish Law, Thought, and History Presented to Dr. Norman Lamm, eds. Y. Elman and J.S. Gurock, (NY: KTAV Publishing House, 1997), 397-405.

(7) See Zikaron Zot on Parashat Bo, p. 47; Ibid., Parashat Pinchas, p. 123 and numerous other places. The page references are to the Zot Zikaron, Zikaron Zot, Divrei Emet (Ashdod, 2004) edition.

(8) See Zikaron Zot on Parashat Pekudei, p. 73.

(9) See the second part of this long essay.

(10) See Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, section 1, Likkutei Amarim, chap. 23. It is extremely important to bear in mind that God transcends human categories of thought (including abstract concepts and symbolic metaphors), thus any discussion about God’s will, garments or limbs are obviously not to be taken literally. All theological discourse about God is anthropomorphic in nature. Nevertheless, these metaphors provide a powerful visualization tool and concrete way of explaining abstract theological concepts. They must therefore be taken for what they are, namely, metaphors and not literal (or even abstract) depictions.

(11) See Tanya, section 4, Igeret ha-kodesh, siman 26.

(12) Haym Soloveitchik, “Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 28, no. 4 (1994), p. 103.

(13) See Thoughts to Ponder 340.
https://www.cardozoacademy.org/thoughts-to-ponder/god-is-relocating-ttp-340/.

(14) For a general treatment of this topic, see Maoz Kahana and Ariel Evan Mayse, “Hasidic Halakhah: Reappraising the Interface of Spirit and Law”, AJS Review 41, no. 2 (2017): 375- 408; Ariel Evan Mayse, “The Ever-Changing Path: Visions of Legal Diversity in Hasidic Literature”, Conversations: The Journal of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals 23 (2015): 84-115; Idem, “Tree of Life, Tree of Knowledge: Halakhah and Theology in Ma’or va-Shamesh”, Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 51, no. 1 (2019): 3-26; Idem, “Neo-Hasidism and Halakhah: The Duties of Intimacy and the Law of the Heart”, in Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse eds. A New Hasidism: Branches (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2019), 155-222; Idem, “Setting the Table Anew: Law and Spirit in a Nineteenth-Century Hasidic Code”, Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 27, no. 2 (2019): 210-242.

(15) See Abraham Joshua Heschel, Kotzk: in gerangl far emesdikeit, I:82-88.

(16) Yoets Kim Kadish, Si'ach Sarfe Kodesh (Piotrków Trybunalski, 1923), 1:75.

(17) Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), 58.

(18) This phenomenon of delaying the times of prayer is a feature of many chassidic groups and is not strictly unique to the Peshischa school of Chassidism. Nevertheless, apparently this issue was exacerbated among the ranks of Peshischa chassidim. On the general issue of the chasidic attitude toward delaying the times for prayer, see Aaron Wertheim, Halachot ve-halichot be-chasidut, (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1993), 88-93. For an eyewitness account of the prayer customs of Kotzk and Peshischa chassidim (from the point of view of a maskil), see Alexander Zederbaum, Keter Kehuna (Odessa, 1867), 129-132.

(19) See Heschel, Kotzk: in gerangl far emesdikeit I:186-188.

(20) Ibid., 261-262. This story is cited in R. Yisrael Iser HaKohen Feigenbaum, Or Pnei Yitzchak (Warsaw, 1939), p. 14 (of the Hebrew pagination), fn. 39.

(21) See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 99:1.

(22) I am not claiming that the Mei Hashiloah did not have any original ideas of his own. Indeed, I do believe that his philosophy contains many highly original ideas and also radical interpretations of ideas articulated in milder form within the Peshischa-Kotzk tradition. Nevertheless, it is important to have a good understanding of the native soil from where his ideas sprouted forth, lest we engage in wild speculation about the Mei Hashiloah’s philosophy without understanding them within their proper context.

(23) Shemot 37:14. See Mei Hashiloach, vol. 1, ad loc. s.v. Elohei maseicha.

(24) Devarim 27:15. See Mei Hashiloach, vol. 2, ad loc. s.v. Arur. Ibid., Shemot 20:19 s.v. Lo Ta'asun.

(25) See Herzl Hefter, “Idolatry: A Prohibition for Our Time”, Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 42, no. 1 (2009): 15-28.

(26) Tehillim 16:8. The constant awareness of the presence of God as a prerequisite to Halacha was not lost on the codifiers of Jewish law. In fact, the Rema, R. Moshe Isserles cites the verse shiviti Hashem le-negdi tamid in his very first gloss on Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 1:1.

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